Susanna Wesley—the mother of John and Charles Wesley, the founders of Methodism—was exemplary in the educating and spiritual training of all her children. Susanna bore nineteen children but only ten of them lived to adulthood. During her childrearing years, the training and educating of her children was her primary focus in life. Each detail of her parental methodology will not be adopted by every parent. But her example has much to teach all Christian parents who desire to do a great job of raising their kids.
In an age when many girls and women, even among the upper class, never learned to read and write, Susanna had the blessing of growing up in the home of a university-trained London minister who saw to it that she received a sound homeschool education. Extremely intelligent, Susanna gained not only an excellent command of the English language but also a remarkable grasp of biblical and theological knowledge. When not quite twenty years of age, Susanna married Samuel Wesley, who was an Oxford graduate and a Church of England minister. The bulk of their ministerial career was spent at Epworth, a modest market town in western Lincolnshire.
Susanna taught her children to recite the Lord’s Prayer when rising each morning and retiring each evening. She also led them in memorizing other short prayers, various portions of Scripture and a short catechism. As was more common for Christian families in that era, Sundays were devoted entirely to religious learning and activities rather than to secular focuses.
Susanna taught each of her children to read when they turned five years old. All but two of the children learned the entire alphabet, upper and lower case letters, in a single day. As soon as they knew their letters, they began reading from the first chapter of Genesis, spelling out and reading one word then verse at a time.
Loud talking or playing were not allowed during the six hours of homeschool that Susanna held each day. Nor were the children permitted to rise out of their places or leave the room unless they had a good reason for doing so.
Susanna later initiated the custom of their singing psalms at the beginning and ending of each school day. She also began pairing up older children with younger ones, and having them read some Psalms and a chapter from the Old Testament before breakfast as well as Psalms and a New Testament chapter at afternoon’s end. Between the morning Scripture reading and breakfast the children were sent to their rooms for a period of private prayer.
From the time they were just a year old (some even earlier), Susanna trained her children “to fear the rod and to cry softly, by which means they escaped abundance of correction which they might otherwise have had.” Susanna placed great stress on the importance of subduing a child’s will from an early age: “In order to form the minds of children, the first thing to be done is to conquer their will, and bring them to an obedient temper. To inform the understanding is a work of time and must with children proceed by slow degrees as they are able to bear it. But the subjecting of the will is a thing which must be done at once, and the sooner the better. For by neglecting timely correction, they will contract a stubbornness and obstinacy, which is hardly ever conquered, and never without using such severity as would be as painful to me as to the child.”
Susanna further advised with balance: “And when the will of a child is totally subdued, and it is brought to revere and stand in awe of the parents, then a great many childish follies and inadvertences may be passed by. Some should be overlooked and taken no notice of, and others mildly reproved. But no willful transgression ought ever be forgiven children, without chastisement less or more, as the nature and circumstances of the offense require.”
Samuel and Susanna Wesley saw to it that their three sons received a first-rate university education. The fact that their sons succeeded in doing so bears testimony to the quality of the foundational education they received from their mother.
Women did not pursue university education in that era. But Susanna took care that her daughters’ education, while confined to their home, was given top priority. She related one of her cardinal rules of education: “That no girl be taught to work till she can read very well. And then that she be kept to her work with the same application and for the same time that she was held to reading. This rule also is much to be observed, for putting children to learn sewing before they can read perfectly is the very reason why so few women can read fit to be heard, and never to be well understood.”
Eventually some of Susanna’s children left home to pursue further education or to live with other relatives for a time (as when the Wesleys’ rectory was destroyed by fire and needed to be rebuilt). Even then Susanna continued to look out for their welfare by writing them long letters full of instruction and advice concerning a variety of spiritual, moral and practical matters. Some of those letters were nothing less than theological treatises. In her first letter to her oldest son after he went to London to continue his education, she explained her motivation in writing him: “I shall be employing my thoughts on useful subjects for you when I have time, for I desire nothing in this world so much as to have my children well instructed in the principles of religion, that they may walk in the narrow way which alone leads to happiness.”
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You will find much more about Susanna Wesley’s interesting life and remarkable ministry to her children in my book Women of Faith and Courage (Christian Focus, 2011). Two commendable full-length biographies on her life are: Susanna Wesley, by Arnold Dallimore (Baker, 1993) and Susanna Wesley, by Kathy McReynolds (Bethany, 1998).
Copyright 2017 by Vance E. Christie